Rapid Reaction: KJ Jefferson powers Arkansas past Penn State in Outback Bowl victory
In the first-ever meeting between two storied programs, No. 22 Arkansas beat Penn State, 24-10, on New Year’s Day in the Outback Bowl. The Razorbacks completed a breakthrough season under 2nd-year head coach Sam Pittman with a 9-win season (9-4) while Penn State finished 7-6.
In their initial appearance in the Outback Bowl, first bowl game in the state of Florida since 2007, and first New Year’s Day bowl game since the 2008 Cotton Bowl, Arkansas punctuated a successful season that found the Razorbacks winning 5 of their last 6 games. It was the program’s 43rd bowl game (16-24-3).
Arkansas had not enjoyed much success against the Big Ten, winning just 2 of 10 previous matchups, including a 0-4 record in bowl games. But the Razorbacks changed their fortunes with a strong running game that featured quarterback KJ Jefferson.
Penn State loaded the box to compensate for not having their two top tacklers at linebacker and another DE – all opting out – and effectively slowed for one half an Arkansas run game, one of the best in the country. But the Razorbacks were under pressure to take up the slack for a passing game hampered by the opting out of All-SEC first team receiver Treylon Burks, a projected 1st-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft.
The Hogs made blocking adjustments at halftime and went to a running game that featured the quarterback. Twice they put together scoring drives without throwing a pass. Jefferson rushed for 117 yards on 9 carries in the 3rd quarter alone.
Jefferson made good reads on option runs to erase a 10-7 halftime deficit on the first drive of the second half. The Razorbacks went 75 yards in 7 plays, all on the ground, to regain the lead, 14-10. Jefferson rushed 4 times for 46 yards in the march, including an 8-yard touchdown run. Dominique Johnson carried the other 3 times for 29 yards. Johnson suffered a leg injury early in the 4th quarter and did not return.
Arkansas’ momentum carried over to the next possession where again the Razorbacks were successful on the ground. But Penn State’s defense ultimately stiffened and the Hogs settled for a 36-yard field goal by Cam Little and a 17-10 lead.
But Penn State could not hold the Hogs out of the end zone on the following drive. Jefferson got it started with a 34 yard dash, but was shaken up on the play and backup QB Malik Hornsby took over, ripping off a 32-yard run to set up a 1-yard TD run from Raheim Sanders, his 2nd short scoring run, and a 24-10 advantage.
A Joe Foucha interception of a Sean Clifford pass in the end zone thwarted Penn State’s comeback efforts. Jefferson returned to the field and Arkansas controlled the action the rest of the way. Foucha played a key role with another big play, sacking Clifford midway through the final period.
The Arkansas defense took early advantage of Penn State’s one-dimensional pass-happy offense, which was significantly diminished by the opting out of leading receiver Jahan Dotson. Arkansas was able to bring more pressure on Clifford with blitzes, relying on three safeties to patrol the secondary.
It blew up in their faces, however, early in the 2nd quarter when Clifford threw a game-tying 42-yard touchdown pass to a wide open KeAndre Lambert-Smith. And they followed up with a 7-play, 61-yard drive to take a 10-7 lead with a 33-yard field goal.
Arkansas wasted a chance to tie or take the lead late in the 1st half, driving to the Penn State 38-yard line. But a double pass ended up with Warren Thompson throwing an interception.
It was the Hogs’ 2nd interception of the half. The Razorbacks had a promising game-opening drive, but after moving 57 yards on 7 yards, Jefferson threw a rare interception in the end zone and the Hogs came up empty. It was just the 2nd interception in the last 7 games for Jefferson, who threw more than 170 passes without a pick. His last one was back in early October. He was 1 of only 4 quarterbacks in the country to throw 20-or-more TD passes with 3-or-fewer interceptions.
He made up for the miscue late in the 1st quarter with a nimble 13-yard run on 4th-and-3 to continue a drive that produced the first points of the game. The Razorbacks converted a second time on 4th down and on the last play of the 1st quarter, Sanders completed the 12-play, 61-yard drive with a 3-yard TD run.
The Hogs led 7-0 and, for the 9th time this season, blanked the opposition after one quarter.